ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Future at Their Fingertips

Visually impaired students in Ethiopia learn independence

Weurke Habtam stands before 99 of her classmates, reading aloud from a sheet of announcements. Among other topics, she notes the day as World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. The 15-year-old’s deft fingertips glide back and forth over Braille indentations on pages held in front of her burgundy uniform.

With that, the assembly marks the beginning of another school day at Shashemene School for the Blind, which teaches first- through sixth-grade students, ages 7 to 18.

The girls, 47 in all, line up before a flagpole. One affixes the flag of the surrounding Oromia region to the rope, using a mark on the cloth to find the top. Alongside a second pole, 52 boys stand in a similar arrangement while one attaches the green, yellow and red flag of Ethiopia. After the students raise the flags and sing the national anthem, they file away, each placing a hand on the shoulder of the student to the front, while many use another hand to trace a wall guiding them to class.

However, it soon becomes clear this caterpillar-like procession is more of a formality; throughout the day, blind and partially sighted students walk about the school unassisted, navigating rooms and passing through doorways without having to feel their way, guided by their own sense of spatial mapping.

“They learn the school’s layout and always seem to know where to go,” says Sister Ashrida Mendes, 60, a petite Indian sister with a ready smile. She is one of three Franciscan Sisters of St. Mary of the Angels who manage the school, which lies about 150 miles south of Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital.

Students range from fully blind to partially sighted, with impairments owing to a variety of problems — many preventable — such as small pox, measles, vitamin A deficiency, malnutrition, glaucoma or inherited retinal conditions. Regardless of their unique circumstances, students can all expect to learn the same crucial trait: independence.

“Here we try to teach the students to do everything on their own,” Sister Ashrida says. “It’s about giving them life skills for when they enter the wider world afterwards.”

In a second-grade mathematics class, students sit paired at desks with wooden clock faces studded with metal at the hour positions, learning how to calculate time. The school fosters a strong ethos of nurturing, encouraging older or more academically minded students to guide their peers. Ranked number two in his grade, 8-year-old Tamensken assists 10-year-old Kaseem, who can only partially hear from one ear.

Even at his young age, Tamensken has big plans. “I want to be a lawyer,” he says.

In a nation where, according to a 2005 United Nations report, fewer than 1 percent of children with special needs have access to education, the sisters and staff of the Shashemene School for the Blind have been helping students achieve such goals for decades.

In the morning, boys gather around bunk beds in their dormitory, squaring off bed sheets before positioning, tucking in and smoothing blankets. At the bottom of each set of bunk beds is a pair of drawers, one for each boy, storing neatly folded clothes and a handful of other possessions.

“Every Wednesday a teacher inspects their bed spaces and awards marks that go toward their grades,” says Lucas Tisino, who has taught at the school for more than three decades and whose slim frame and sharp features belie his age, 51. “The students don’t like to depend on others. They want to do it all on their own.”

During mid-morning recess, the children enjoy a snack and busy themselves in a range of distractions before their next class. Although classes are coeducational, recreation and boarding are separated.

In a fenced-off area, boys play a quick game of soccer. The goalkeeper, 12-year-old Teshta, positions himself according to the sounds of the ball scuffing the ground, then lunges or dives to block a shot he judges inbound. Though he sometimes misjudges, he is never discouraged, and often succeeds in redirecting the ball.

Such tenacity is also often needed for the school’s mentors.

“It can be hard when you aren’t able to see a response in the children’s faces,” Sister Ana says. “You have to always strain and give your energy, and you need a lot of patience and understanding.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of campus, girls move in groups of two, three or four, hanging their arms around each other’s shoulders as they pace up and down walkways. Some chat, laughing. One student knits a scarf as a friend manages the ball of luminous green string. Others study and practice Braille.

“Reading Braille is a challenge, but they never give up,” says Sister Ana Bereira, 32. As with Sister Ashrida, Sister Ana comes from Goa, India. “Once they get to higher education, it might take them longer to complete, but they stay on; they know education is the only way forward for them.”

Seated at an open-air table, 13-year-old Yeshenwork sits still, moving only her fingers across the sheets on her lap. “It’s no problem to read,” she reports.

Nearby, a girl named Tinsaiay presses a sharp metal prod into a stencil over a sheet of Braille paper. The small perforations quickly transform the page into a letter to a friend.

Sister Ashrida displays a homemade Braille book, explaining how the students make these for themselves — even winding threads into string for bindings — to take as reference material when they leave the school.

“They want to excel, and are thinking of the future,” she says. “They will not be sidelined in anything; they want to explore everything. …

“I remember one student in particular,” Sister Ashrida says. “She was blind and had lost both her legs in a fire. But she was always smiling. Now she is at another school continuing her studies in the seventh grade, sharing her skills with two other blind children.”

This attitude is not uncommon, Sister Ashrida says. “The students always seem to look on the positive, brighter side of things.”

Another alumnus made a particular impression on her. After graduating from university, one young man could not find a job, she explains. Undaunted, he returned to the university, seeking job placement assistance. Four months later, he telephoned Sister Ashrida to discuss his new job, and other news.

“He told me he had also gotten married. He said he needed the help of a woman,” she says, laughing.

Long before dawn on the day of its grand opening, 23 February 1981, families were already arriving at the school for the blind in the town of Shashemene. At the time, it was only the second school of its kind in the country.

At 6 a.m., arrivals celebrated Mass with the Rev. John Bonzanino, the Italian priest who founded the school, along with two Irish Sisters of Charity, Mary McAteer and Rosario Finnera. The celebration included reading the passage from the Gospel of St. Mark in which Jesus restored Bartimaeus’s sight.

Originally consisting of three small classrooms and two dormitories for 33 pupils, the school moved in 1983 to the large compound that serves it today. This includes a U-shaped bungalow complex containing a dozen classrooms, a library, a science laboratory, washrooms, dormitories, a dining hall and numerous other facilities.

Sister Ana chose to come to the school after hearing about it through her superiors. “I always wanted to do something different and related to special needs, so I said, ‘I will try.’ I had to give it a go — otherwise how would I know?”

For all their accomplishments, the challenges are undeniable. Sister Ashrida says securing a future for students less academically inclined is always a concern.

“We aren’t able to teach them other skills. What will they do afterwards? I’m always thinking of how we might help them.” A previous school administrator highlighted another complication still evident today.

“The fact that there are no local contributions is regrettable,” wrote Sister Jacintha in a booklet to mark the school’s silver jubilee in 2006. “Unless and until society changes its attitudes towards the blind and disabled, and takes up its share of responsibility, there will be no lasting solution to the problem.”

Thanks to education and media, attitudes in Ethiopia toward blindness have improved, says Argaw Fantu, regional director in Ethiopia for CNEWA. But in rural and more remote areas, Mr. Fantu notes, many people still consider any form of disability a curse, often shutting children in homes, away from society.

Sister Ashrida points out 18-year-old Lubo, sitting with her friends. “When she arrived five years ago she couldn’t walk, having been hidden in her home for so long,” Sister Ashrida says.

“It’s a joy to see students growing up and getting their dignity.”

Change, incrementally, is coming to Ethiopia, thanks to the likes of the school and other organizations — the vast majority of which are international.

“Former students are very successful,” Mr. Fantu says, “not only at leading independent lives but by contributing to the nation — showing that blindness is not a curse.”

“We never know if our benefactors will always be able to help — they may have their own crises to deal with,” Sister Ashrida says. “We have to trust in God that we will find what we need. Though it’s not just financial investment we need but also personal investment and expertise.”

On Saturday morning, students greet the day leisurely. Speakers inside the school are tuned to a local radio station. A group of girls gathers beneath one speaker as they tend to one another’s hair.

Some girls have close-cropped hair — newcomers, Sister Ashrida explains, must be shaved if they arrive with head lice. Once this threat has been dealt with, however, the girls eagerly take charge of hairdressing, arranging one another’s hair into various styles prevalent in Ethiopia.

“If the hair is fine it might take me 45 minutes to an hour; if the hair is thick it could take two hours,” says partially sighted Bontu, 15, weaving the hair of a younger girl into the tight braids of the shuruba style. She uses a pen to part the hair and start on a new section while she discusses her impairment.

“I am happy. There is no problem; it is God’s will,” she says. “I am ready to accept what he has given me — at least I can see something.”

Over on the boys’ side, sprightly second-grader Tamensken is jumping rope, his face set in concentration, as the other boys count from the sounds of the rope hitting the ground.

“The most important thing I learned [at Shashemene],” says Yetnebersh Nigussie, 33, who attended the school in the early 1990’s, “was give as much as you can.”

“When you give, you fill a gap,” she says.

“People think that by receiving you fill a gap, but the sisters showed me it’s not like that,” continues the well-known Ethiopian lawyer and disability activist, who lost her sight at the age of 5.

In Ms. Nigussie’s office at the Addis Ababa-based Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development, which she co-founded, she discusses other challenges she’s surmounted — including those tied to gender roles, which tend to portray men as more suited to leadership positions.

“For me, women have always been leaders,” she says, describing how the sisters were her earliest and most important models of leadership.

Under their guidance, she adds, she grew in the Catholic faith that has helped inspire and sustain her efforts.

Only a small minority of the school’s students is Catholic; most are Ethiopian Orthodox or Muslim. This pattern holds across Ethiopia, where the Catholic Church is the second-largest provider of schools after the Ethiopian government, even though Catholics account for fewer than 1 percent of all Ethiopians.

“This is the essence of the Catholic Church — it’s all encompassing, especially with schools,” Mr. Fantu says. “Everyone appreciates and values its holistic formulation, which isn’t just about teaching, but also ethics, about how to live.”

Students at Shashemene have absorbed this lesson well. During a typical day, numerous moments hint at the collective support and courage that abound among students. After dinner, the boys gather to sit along a low wall to sing a hymn. As a small boy moves to take his place, he stumbles. In an instant, a boy already seated extends a hand to support him, while a larger boy standing beside reaches an arm around to steady him.

“They don’t have fears,” Sister Ana says. “Those of us who can see are so afraid, we worry about everything we do. But not them — they travel all over the country, they get jobs, and they come up in life.”

James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist based in Addis Ababa. He writes about Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa for various international media, including BBC, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera and CNN.

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